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Formaldehyde is a volatile organic compound (VOC) and a strong smelling colorless gas. It is an extremely common product with annual global production estimated in 2005 to be 23 million tonnes. It is used in thousands of manufactured products - especially pressed-wood products such as plywood and particle board - but also is in some synthetic fabrics, cosmetics, glues and many other household items. It is also used in some fungicides and disinfectants. Formaldehyde is also found as a product of combustion - being part of the complex mixture of substances released in smoke when things such as wood and even natural gas are burned. It can also show up in dust, after sticking to other dust particles. It is found in cigarette smoke. Formaldehyde also occurs naturally in very low concentrations in the natural environment.
Formaldehyde has the chemical formula CH2O and has also been known by the names methanal, paraform, formalin, formol, methyl aldehyde, ethylene glycol, methylene oxide and paraformaldehyde.
Formaldehyde can be absorbed through the skin when in liquid form (formaledhyde is mixed with alcohol and water in the creation of formaldehyde products). It is known to be "off-gassed" - released into the air from products that contain it, especially when such products are new - and thus inhaled. Typically, higher exposure is encountered by workers such as those in textile industries or laboratories, however formaldehyde is off-gassed by many products, possibly leading to long-term low-level exposure. The amount of off-gassing usually decreases over time, as less and less of the original formaldehyde remains. Pressed-wood products are one of the most significant sources of exposure in homes as the glues used in their construction contain formaldehyde resins. New homes and new recreational vehicles such as trailers are said to be sources of formaldehyde exposure. Formaledhyde is also present in car exhaust fumes.
How Harmful is Formaldehyde?
Formaldehyde is classified as toxic by the Dangerous Substances Directive (67/548/EEC). It is an irritant and can cause allergic reactions in some people - although sensitivity to it varies widely from person to person. Severity of symptoms increases with higher levels of formaldehyde. Research has also indicated correlation between formaldehyde exposure and female reproductive problems.
Is Formaldehyde Carcinogenic?
Concerns over formaldehyde usage have increased as it has been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals - although these tests were at much higher concentrations than those usually found in human environments, and the long-term results of human exposure are not fully known. OSHA considers formaldehyde a 'suspected carcinogen', however the U.S. EPA and the IARC classified it as a probable human carcinogen since 1987 and 1995 respectively. More recently, the IARC has reclassified formaldehyde, stating it to be a known human carcinogen.
Tips for Reducing Formaldehyde Exposure
1) Use solid wood or certified low-formaldehyde products instead of pressed wood products
2) Ventilate indoor areas with fresh air, especially newly painted rooms or those with new furnishings, and avoid the use of these rooms for the first few days if possible.
3) Investigate the use of gas phase air purification technology.
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Note - the above article is not medical advice. If you are concerned about formaldehyde exposure or have symptoms please consult a qualified physician. See notes below for more info.